At a dinner organized by friends of mine, earlier this month, I strike up a conversation with a Dutch woman who has been brought along by a friend of the hosts and whom I’ve never met before. I ask her if she lives in London and she says no; she’s currently squatting, in fact, and has come to volunteer for an environmental activism group called Extinction Rebellion. I’d read about the group in the newspapers, seen its stickers on lamp posts and traffic lights. A month earlier, demonstrators had sent a river of fake blood flowing down the street outside the Prime Minister’s residence. Now, the Dutch woman says, they’re gearing up for what promises to be their biggest action yet. “We’re shutting down the city,” she explains. “Starting Monday.” The phrasing intrigues me: what would a shut-down London look like, I wonder? And another question, fearful and exciting at the same time: what does it look like when a movement asks you directly to contemplate the end?
The answer, it turns out, is a lot like joy: Monday is the first springlike day after a long stretch of drear, and in true mad-dogs-and-Englishmen style massive crowds are out to greet the midday sun. Swaddled in scaffolding, Big Ben is unrecognizable as it towers above the protests below. Chanting, singing; a woman with a red mask that says MENSTRUAL ACTIVISTS FOR A CYCLICALLY REGENERATIVE WORLD. A very cool child with a “junior anarchist” sign is chalking messages onto the pavement. Two women are dressed as dodos with newspaper feathers and papier-mâché beaks; when one of them turns, I see she’s holding a sign that reads, YOU’RE NEXT, HUMANS. This kind of scene gets at the Manichaean amalgam of dark and light at the core of Extinction Rebellion’s theology: doom and salvation. Mourning and celebration. Flags in cheery springtime colors depicting insect species that are in dramatic decline. Skull stickers that are surprisingly popular with children.
I have an earnest conversation with a leaflet distributor who had come down from Leeds about his fears that, as a young gay man, he will be robbed by climate change of his ability to raise a family just when that right had finally been granted to him. He walks me through Extinction Rebellion’s three demands: that the government tell the truth about climate change, that it commit to zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and that it create a Citizens’ Assembly to lead climate policy. Across the green, a group of people has amassed around a woman I cannot see, who is shouting out instructions for some kind of ritual. “Where are the symbols of time?!” she calls repeatedly. Many of the people here—and elsewhere in the Square—are in costume, which lends things a ComiCon vibe. Having apparently located the symbols of time, the woman continues: “We are going to CALL IN THE SYMBOLS OF TRANSFORMATION.”
There is animal groaning and wailing from the crowd.
“NOW WE ARE GOING TO TRUTHFULLY NAME THE CRISES OF OUR TIME. FOR EXAMPLE, THE CORPORATIZATION OF THE MEDIA.”
“Imperialism!” someone yells. “Solitude!” “Poverty!” “The patriarchy!”
“CALL OUT YOUR TRANSFORMATION IDENTITY!!!”
This is greeted by a tangle of shouted words. When I eventually descend the steps to the Tube once more, I hear the caterwaul of bagpipes from somewhere in the crowd behind me.
“Dear Miss Eisen,” an email from Transport for London on Tuesday evening reads. “There are a number of demonstrations taking place across London, causing disruption to roads and bus routes across central London, which is expected to continue over the next two weeks. There may also be some disruption on the Tube and Rail networks in central London from tomorrow morning.”
As announced, the third day of the protests herald the beginning of direct actions against transport networks: that morning, I read in the news that protesters have glued themselves to a train in Canary Wharf. Yet my way into the city is undisrupted. As I ride on the Jubilee line from Dollis Hill, the journey is sometimes screechy, sometimes quiet, but always smooth as the train bounds onwards past Willesden Green, past Kilburn, past West Hampstead, and into the heart of the capital. The movement has no plans to target the Tube. Despite what the Dutch woman had told me, the entire city had not, in fact, shut down. It would be unnervingly easy to maintain the illusion of normalcy even as massive crowds are protesting its irretrievable breakdown.
I’m heading into the center because my sister has invited me to a pub quiz in Angel, where our team loses dismally after being unable to recognize Olivia Munn, Olivia de Havilland, or Oliver Reed in the crucial picture round. When my sister goes for a cigarette break, I find myself parked with one of her friends, an American trader who works in London. I ask him what he thinks of the protests and am not surprised to hear that he disapproves. “It’s childish,” he says. “They’re just being disruptive and threatening people’s safety.” The pub quiz is raising money for his girlfriend’s run in the London Marathon, which is slated to take place in a week and a half’s time and for the sake of which parts of the city will be blocked off, including major thoroughfares and multiple bridges.
You can tell you’re getting close to the protests by the increasing density of stickers: CLIMATE CHAOS WE’RE FUCKED, says a bright pink one on the turnstiles I pass through on my way out of the Tube; most of the stickers I see, however, are the bare-bones logo, a black-widow hourglass that resembles a capital X with the top and bottom closed off (members of the movement often refer to it as XR).
Of course, you can also tell you’re close by the music: I can already hear the drumbeats as I ascend the stairs of the station at Oxford Circus and step out onto the street. A pink boat has been parked in the center of an intersection flanked by an H&M and a Nike; it takes me a while to realize that the activists bedded down on cardboard around the boat are chained to it. At one point, the music is interrupted by an announcement asking for volunteers to take a shift beneath the keel.
I’ve come here straight from the pub quiz, and in the context of my conversation with the American trader, the universal decorousness I encounter amongst the people I speak to—the parodically British sense of apology for making such a fuss—is doubly striking. One such apologetic protester is handing out stickers when we get to talking. He’s been involved with XR for months and was part of an action in the fall that had blocked off five major bridges in the city. Every arrest on the bridges, he says, was greeted by singing and cheers. As we speak, an announcement comes that the Parliament Square location is having trouble holding ground after heavy arrests earlier in the day; we dutifully set off with a group of reinforcements.
Mass arrests are part of Extinction Rebellion’s strategy to raise the profile of the climate emergency. “The action itself is not actually that important. It’s the going to prison that’s got cultural relevance,” Roger Hallam, an XR founder, said in a short documentary made by The Guardian. Just a few days into the protest, hundreds of arrests have already been racked up: there are reports of activists being booked as far away as Brighton, Luton, and Essex because London jails are overwhelmed. When the police decide to arrest XR members, they usually do so by issuing Section 14 notices, which can be done if officers believe that a stationary protest “may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community.” Technically, the police monitoring the XR actions are in their power to declare this at any time they see fit, but in reality, for reasons of optics or understaffing, they often choose to watch how things progress from the sidelines. The rhythms of the protest are strange: long periods of calm punctured by sudden moments of drama when the police decide to move in on one area or another in a coordinated attempt to clear it.
It’s near midnight by the time we reach the Houses of Parliament: the throngs of Monday afternoon have dwindled to small groups of woozy dancers trying to keep the energy high as knots of police officers look on. Some of the crowd’s thinning out is due to the day’s arrests, but most, of course, is due simply to the fact that the vast majority of people have returned home to sleep: any cause, however meritorious, eventually comes up against the physical needs of the individuals defending it. When one police van rounds the corner and then another, there’s a palpable elevation in tension: if they really wanted to, I think, the police could probably take back the square at this point, moving everyone out and tearing down the banners blocking the road and making it look as though none of this had ever happened. The ebb and flow of normal life would resume, and come morning the dancers would be replaced by cabs and double-decker buses. But to my surprise, the vans keep driving and move on.
On the train home with the Oxford Circus reinforcements I’d walked over with, a conversation-shattering shriek of metal-on-metal prompts a debate about which Tube line is the loudest. Then, as we pull into the next station, one of the people I’m with asks which lines have CCTV in the carriages.
“Not this one,” someone says.
The guy who’d asked the question looks over one shoulder, looks over the other, slaps a sticker where the advertisements usually go, and hops out.
THE COTSWOLD CONSPIRATORS: HOW FOUR KEY PLAYERS IN THE EXTINCTION REBELLION ECO-MOB PLOTTED CHAOS IN LONDON FROM VEGETARIAN CAFÉ IN LEAFY MARKET TOWN blares a headline in The Daily Mail the next day. Another: PARTYING POLICE FINALLY GO IN TO CLEAR ECO-MOB PROTESTERS AFTER FOUR DAYS OF DISRUPTION. The latter includes screenshots of tweets calling for water cannons to be used on protesters.
The friend who joins me that evening has not been to any of the XR events yet, so we meet at Waterloo Bridge, which has been filled with trees and potted plants, as well as a skating halfpipe and a large stage. The flyers we pick up at the information desk are weighted down with potatoes; the awning above us is decorated with cloth bunting to which index cards with the phone numbers of recommended solicitors have been safety-pinned.
From Waterloo Bridge, we walk all the way to Marble Arch, a roughly two-and-a-half-mile journey that takes us through the Oxford Circus encampment where I’d been just the night before. Perhaps inadvertently, the protests have resculpted parts of the city into a kind of pedestrianization beta-test: the blockades at Marble Arch and Oxford Circus have turned the large stretch of Oxford Street between them––usually a hellish, neon-soaked commercial drag to be avoided at all possible costs––into a car-free oasis of almost post-apocalyptic calm. Most people walking along the closed section of road are so conditioned to the normal order that they restrict themselves to the sidewalk, but the din and crush of buses and cabs and tourists has been replaced by the soft whirr of passing bicycles and above all by a new spirit of openness. In this way, I think, the protests have made imaginable the kind of future they propose.
Marble Arch, which is located in the northeast corner of Hyde Park, is distinct from the other XR locations in that, unlike the middle of a major commercial artery or an important bridge, that area of the park has a history of being an authorized site for protest. Since the nineteenth century, the so-called “Speakers’ Corner” adjacent to the arch has served as a public soapbox for exponents of wildly varying beliefs and become a much-touted symbol of freedom of expression in the UK. When the police make a push to shut down the blockades at Oxford Circus and Waterloo Bridge, they often ask people to go to Marble Arch, where the protesters’ disruptive power is effectively minimized by the nature of the area as a space for state-sanctioned harangues.
Though the Paris Agreement sought to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C by the end of the century—a goal in accordance with which Extinction Rebellion’s demand for carbon-neutrality by 2025 was calibrated—it seems increasingly likely that, absent serious action, we are staring down the barrel of a temperature increase of 4º or more, which will raise the sea levels around Britain by multiple meters. The non-profit group Practical Action has translated this information into a Tube map for the year 2100 highlighting all of the areas projected to be underwater should such predictions come true. The list of stations soon to be absorbed by the glacier-melt-swollen River Thames includes Southwark, the one from which I emerge on Friday evening––Good Friday, meaning there are hot-cross buns at the Waterloo Bridge outpost’s food station when I arrive. A bit further down, a group of folk musicians are jamming for a rapt audience, one fiddler perched on a blow-up globe. During a lull between songs, the accordion player turns to some of the other musicians and announces, “Jamie’s mum got arrested!” “My grandma got arrested!” replies the tambourinist.
When I ask at the information desk where the XR inductions––which take place every two hours, with the first of the day beginning at 11 AM and the last at 7 PM––are held, a gentleman with a Barn Owl Trust patch on his jacket instructs me to walk past the black yurt until I see a circle of hay bales. While we’re still waiting for the induction to begin, news reaches us that police have succeeded in wrenching the boat from Oxford Circus, though demonstrators had begun gluing themselves to the hull in protest. By this point, the total number of arrests is over six hundred.
When the induction leader takes us through Extinction Rebellion’s three demands, the lack of serious discussion about the role of capitalism in perpetuating environmental destruction strikes me. Though calibrated (I assume) so as not to scare away those of less lefty political persuasions, such an omission seems at the very least disingenuous. The much-covered train gluings of a few days before had directly targeted one of London’s business centers; looking out across the Thames now, I can see the City, with its dreadful collection of whimsical neoliberal skyscrapers, somewhere among which my sister’s trader friend works. If people like him find non-violent direct action movements like Extinction Rebellion to be a distasteful inconvenience, what will they think of the megadisasters to come, and the waves of violent upheaval that will follow?
The sun has already set when I walk off the bridge. It is the first night of Passover: I think of liberation; I think of freedom; I think of the sea levels rising and rising until they overwhelm all the buildings I see before me, flooding the lobby of the National Theatre, submerging the ground floor of the British Film Institute, lapping at the lowermost gondolas of the London Eye. By the time I reach Waterloo Station, the spirited cacophony of the protest has been replaced by the din of buskers, the whizz of buses, cars. It would be so easy not to know that a massive demonstration was going on a few blocks over. Earlier that evening, when my sister had messaged me to see if I was free, I’d told her I was going to Extinction Rebellion. She replies: “What’s extinction rebellion.”